Refugee care presents compelling needs, big obstacles, Comninellis says

Nicholas Comninellis (left), M.D. ’82, spoke with students after his lecture.

Providing health care to refugee populations faces tremendous obstacles, but it can be done, and everyone can help, Nicholas Comninellis, M.D. ’82, told students, faculty and guests on May 16 at the School of Medicine.

Comninellis, UMKC’s Alumnus of the Year in 2015, spoke on “Refugee Care—Displaced But Not Forgotten,” as part of the school’s International Medicine Lecture Series.

He has been on the faculty at the School of Medicine and in 2004 founded INMED, the Institute for International Medicine, which is based in Kansas City and equips health care professionals to provide primary care for refugees and other displaced people.

Using slides and a brief film from UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, Comninellis homed in on dire refugee situations stemming from ISIS control of regions in Syria and Iraq. He asked audience members to help him list the obstacles to treating refugee populations, and then he went through the four phases of aiding refugees, from pre-emergency and emergency through post-emergency maintenance and repatriation.

The combination of displacement from their homes, violent emotional and sometimes physical trauma, a severe lack of material and medical resources, and lack of infrastructure for sanitary living makes providing even basic medical care difficult, he said.

High stress is also common, often related to worrying about whether there will be enough to eat. And even when a refugee settlement can achieve some stability and sense of safety away from battle areas, boredom and finding meaningful work then can become a big problem, he said.

Comninellis showed many heart-rending, close-up photographs from refugee camps, and then a photo from Jordan showing a vast expanse of thousands of tents in a desert camp where refugees had lived for the past five years.

In calling on his audience to help, Comninellis said the refugee problem one “of biblical proportions,” and he read verses from Leviticus and Deuteronomy admonishing people to care for and love “the foreigner residing among you.” He noted that his father’s father had been a refugee from Greece during World War II, and that many people in the audience probably had some refugee history in their families.

He also noted that his organization, INMED, offered courses, training, fellowships, service learning and diploma programs so that students, residents and other graduates could develop and practice skills in international medicine.

He also encouraged everyone to volunteer with a reputable organization that aids refugees, to help refugees who settled in their communities, to be aware of changing refugee situations in the world, and to encourage elected representatives to pursue policies that help refugees.

Before Comninellis spoke, Steven Waldman, M.D. ’77, J.D., M.B.A., and associate dean of International Programs, said the School of Medicine on Aug. 22 would have a session outlining opportunities for international service learning and research that will be available through Global Health Learning Opportunities. That’s a collaborative of about 140 international programs, through the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Waldman also said an International Medicine Day was in the works for November, during which posters could be presented, much like the school’s annual Quality and Patient Safety Day.